American Culture Shock # 2346238746: STAY RIGHT!!!

I have logged most of my driving hours on the left side of the road for the past few years.. I thought transitioning to the right, where I’ve driven for over a decade would be easy. For the most part it is. However, every now and then, my subconscious surprises me.

After a month and a half of American roads, I noticed these Asian-influenced behaviours in myself:
– When pulling up to the tool booth, I hug the right curb, earning a huge gap for my coin toss or an annoyed toll collector.
– “T” intersections confuse me.
– I drive slow. So very slow. I don’t think I’ve spent even 5 cumulative hours the past three years driving more than 30mph.
– I think American drivers are a bunch of jerks. People in developing countries don’t know how to drive because they went from livestock making the decisions to having to steer an automatic vehicle in less than a generations. Americans on the other hand are taught better and do know better. They just choose to be jerks.
– I have forgotten to pay attention to stop signs.
– I am befuddled when I actually have the right of way.
– I drift. Because the road looks smoother the way I am going.
– I ignore line markings and follow traffic flow. (which is, fortunately, between the lines )
– I mastered the art of passing in tight spots.
– I park rear in.

The last week I had in the States, I was driving my aunt. As I waited for her too late direction to turn right out of the parking lot, I had crossed over three of four lanes to make the turn before I realised I could only go left. Confused, I asked my aunt why she made me turn on an one-way street. As I turned left and pulled up to the light, it dawned on me that the road was not one-way but that I confused the streets as left-side traffic. Six weeks and that still rears it’s ugly head in moments like that!

Hanoi traffic

Hanoi Old Quarter has the scariest traffic I ever encountered. It is chaotic like Phnom Penh, only massively crowded with too-small streets. All sorts of traffic move at every which direction. Pedestrian, rickshaws, vehicular, motorcycle, bicycle, and whatever else that can move. There never is a break enough to cross the road in peace. The only strategy one can employ is to just go. Just walk at a slow steady pace, don’t make eye contact, and everyone will somehow move around you.

In an attempt to help you visualize… I present you both a video (taken by me) and a nice composite of photos taken and put together by my brother.

They weren’t kidding when they said bring ear plugs.. for when you’re walking.

Take your time

Yesterday was Thai Constitution Day, a local holiday. Figured I’d celebrate my time off, right? Instead, I had spent all afternoon yesterday in the ICU at a hospital.

I wasn’t the patient, fortunately. A friend was in an accident early this week. He was in surgery for all day earlier this week to patch up and reset his multiple broken bones all over his body. While not life threatening, his injuries are extensive and serious. They kept him in the ICU all week.

He was hit by a tuktuk when crossing the street. Fortunately, his date was a sensible girl with a good head on her shoulders. She got the police to write up an official report when they planned to dismiss it as a stupid farang incident. She called the hospital directly to pick him up. Then she managed to call one of us to report the accident.  He was extremely lucky in an unlucky way.

A freak accident that could have happened to anyone in broad daylight. I am reminded that, statistically, for all the crime and atrocities in the world, our biggest danger is the simple vehicle-related accident. It could happen in the Stop & Shop parking lot in Boston or it can happen in a Bangkok street. So next time, folks, look twice before crossing the street and don’t be in such a rush to get somewhere.

To bike or not to bike

A friend’s recent conversion from public transportation to biking for commute reminded me of the one dilemma I’ve been struggling with for almost a year. To bike or not to bike. Her conversion was relatively easy. She lives in Washington DC and between her and her girlfriend, they had four bikes that I saw when I visited. My scenario, not so simple.

Despite the fact that we are talking about an Asian city, Bangkok is not a biking city. First, there are no shoulders on the streets. Second, there are no reliable sidewalks that haven’t been treated more like a plot of land for mobile street storefronts than a strip for pedestrians to walk safely out of the street. Between one and two, there is no consistent area or side that a biker can conceivably stick to.

Oh, I haven’t even started on the motorised vehicles. Road stripes? Decoration. If they still exist. A three lane street? May well be a four lane one. Or a two lane with two and a half additional lanes of taxi and bus pull over. The motorcycles, probably are the worst danger, really. They weave in and out of lanes, between cars, onto the sidewalk, whichever way they can fine space to avoid coming to a stop.

So to bike or not to bike? Despite all this.. I’d get the basic bike with a basket on front. Like those bikes you envision people riding leisurely through the French countryside. That’s right. I don’t actually own a bike right now. I haven’t had one in years because…

I’m horrible on a bike. I have scars to prove it. My last bike was used the grand total of once. Then I left it tied to the balcony, for the squirrels to have a feast off the handles. My last year of biking while in college? On each separate occasion, I hit a car door, got my front wheel stuck on a crack and went heels over head in a somersault, got pushed off a sidewalk into oncoming traffic. I gladly gave my bike away.

Yes, now, I want a bike. A cherry red one. With basket a on the front.